As Jimmy Carr prepares for his first show in Tokyo next month, we called him up and chatted about his brutal humor, losing religion, and why laughing at an old lady falling over doesn’t make you a bad person.
Japan will be welcoming one of the biggest names in British comedy this February with Jimmy Carr set to perform his stand-up routine for one night only at Yamano Hall in Yoyogi, Tokyo. Anyone who’s seen the 8 Out of 10 Cats host perform live will know this is not a show for those easily offended. Expect a barrage of witty one-liners covering every taboo topic imaginable, all delivered with a deadpan expression.
Why did you decide to include Japan on your tour?
It’s not a place on British or American comedians’ radar, but I think it should be. I’ve played all over the world and a close friend kept telling me I had to go. It’ll be my first time to visit and I imagine it’ll be as close as I’m going to get to actually being in Blade Runner.
Will you have much free time to explore the city?
I’ve got five days with a long list of stuff to do. Everything from the cat petting cafés to the horror theme parks. I’m fairly obsessed by Japanese food and a huge sake drinker so I’m planning to go on a bit of a culinary tour as well as have a few nights out. Oh, and the Harajuku girls that I’ve seen in documentaries; I want to spend a day exploring that whole scene. I’m looking forward to all of those things as much as the show.
Speaking of the show, what kind of crowd are you expecting?
I guess it’ll mostly be British expats, but wherever you go there’s also the Anglophile thing with people who love comedy from the UK, so I hope there are Japanese people there who speak amazing English. The highest calling for linguistic ability is being able to understand a joke in a foreign language.
For those who’ve never seen you live, how would you describe your stand-up?
It can be pretty brutal. My sense of humor is quite dark. There are certain jokes you’ll tell friends that you think maybe can’t be said in public, but I never want to have that barrier with the audience. I try to view them as friends, knowing that if I say something crude they’ll get that it’s just a joke.
Is it hard to know where to draw the line?
The lovely thing is that I feel I don’t have to draw the line because the audience does that for me. Anyone can get a reaction by saying something controversial; the trick is to make people laugh before they gasp. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that I love. You don’t get to choose when you laugh; it’s a reflex that chooses you. When you see an old lady falling over in the street you laugh straight away, but that doesn’t make you a bad person. You call for help a second later.
I did a program for the BBC about laughter and it really is a fascinating form of communication that predates language by more than a million years. It’s a social noise that people don’t really make when they’re on their own, even if they’ve seen something funny on YouTube. Apes used to try and make each other laugh by tickling, but for humans there’s a limit to the number of people you can do that to, so we try to elicit the same response through humor. You could say jokes are a remote form of tickling. That’s effectively what I’m doing when I’m on stage. It’s fun.
Do you prefer doing stand-up to television work?
I wouldn’t say that. TV shows are a joy. For a program like QI, I turn up as a guest and have a laugh with friends. It’s a dream job. There’s more responsibility when presenting, but you’ve got 20 people behind the scenes working to make you look good. At the same time, I get to mess around with my favorite comedians. It feels like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. With stand-up, whilst there’s more freedom, you feel extra pressure because you have to make it great by yourself.
So, you still get nervous?
Yes. In Japan, I’ll be on my toes and nervy for the first couple of jokes. Then at some point you stand back on your heels and think, “I’ve got this.”
Was it always your dream to be a comedian?
Not at all. I was a marketing executive at an oil company until 26 and just got bored so I decided to do something more interesting. At that point in my life I’d stopped believing in God and subsequently felt freer. If you think there’s a life beyond this one, you tend to compromise more and not take risks. After reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, I realized all we have is right here, so it was time to start living.
You also lost your virginity then. Do you get tired of people asking you about that?
No I don’t because I think it’s nice for someone in the public eye to say, “You know what, I didn’t have anything worked out when I was 25, but things still turned out all right.” When you’re a teenager you see life as a kind of race, and social media exacerbates the burden on youngsters to conform, and to outdo each other. On Instagram, there are constantly pictures of people having the best days of their lives or skinny girls posing with pancakes. The reality is skinny girls are hungry and many of us are just sat bored at home eating cornflakes. Life isn’t as wonderful as it appears on these sites, and during our youth we all have to go through embarrassing experiences; but when we get older we can look back and laugh.
Do you draw on those experiences for your shows?
I get material from small things like conversations or watching the news. I guess I see the world through rose-tinted glasses that are always looking for jokes. It’s like a puzzle. You have a phrase or an idea that might be funny, then you work back to try and figure out why it’s a gag.
Best comedians ever?
Peter Cook or Spike Milligan. They are the Lennon and McCartney of comedy. Nobody in the industry has done anything they haven’t. Neither of them were stand-ups; they were just funny guys doing their thing.
Who’s the most famous person in your phonebook?
That’d probably be … Stephen Hawking. He’s a huge fan of going out drinking and eating spicy food. Also, for a cosmologist he’s a bloody good laugh.
You can invite three guests, living or dead, for dinner – who do you choose?
I’m going to go for three living because the smell from the corpses would be off-putting. Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. I mean, we’re having dinner, you just want the food to be good, right? If you’re talking about company, it’d have to be comedians, but I’d feel bad leaving people out. Who am I loving at the moment? Maybe three female comics: Michelle Wolf, Tina Fey and Sarah Millican. That’d be an entertaining evening.
Any Japanese person you’d love to meet?
I’m a big fan of Beat Takeshi. He was a big comic back in the day, and then made these incredible films like Sonatine and Hanabi, which I thought were phenomenal. You need a lot of talent to be able to produce that kind of work while also acting brilliantly as a clown. Another person I’d love to meet is Sonny Chiba. Watching his martial arts movies, you get the feeling he’s just basically very cool.
How about a gag for the road?
Hmm, it’s difficult because jokes are never as good on paper. Maybe one about dwarves as they usually get overlooked. I’ll tell you what I know about dwarves: very little. I can say that as they look up to me. Thanks very much.
Catch Jimmy Carr on February 27 at Yamano Hall. Click here for more information and ticket details.
This article appears in the January 2017 issue of Tokyo Weekender magazine.